Wine Competitions … Why are there so many?

October 8, 2012 at 2:47 pm

This is rather a complicated question. They are one way to talk about your wine in a way that makes them sound, Award winning, Best of Show, Champion of the Region or whatever other moniker you care to ascribe.
The first part of the rather leading question, is what are they?
To that, I will answer with what they are not! They are not the best way to promote your wine. Known in the trade as “Accolades“. Gold, Platinum, Double Gold are the main stays of wine awards at competitions. Then there are point scores which only happen at very few Competitions. The California State Fair gives medals and point scores. Although, I’m not sure how 93 points equates to a Silver Medal? That’s exactly what one of the wines that received this year. If this isn’t confusing to consumers, let alone wine trade pro’s I’m not sure how sales reps who sell that wine would try and spin that? Maybe  just leave it as a 93 Point Wine and leave off the bit about being a silver medal?

If you aren’t familiar with traditional Point scores from magazines such as Wine & Spirits, Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate who work from the 100 point score, generally anything 90 points and above is a great wine! Even 88 points from Antonio Gallino is nothing to sneer at. I recently tasted one such 88 point wine and in my book it was closer to 92 points. So how do experts in vino conclude that one wine is 94 points and another is a mere 87? To this, it all depends on the context. If you taste a group of wines from a known brand who is used to getting high 90 point scores then you would expect them to receive these consistently, yet for a bad weather vintage. Would these be tasted blind? I would say yes, but the problem with tasting blind at a winery that is already a known quantity, it isn’t hard for the reviewer to figure out which variety of wine they are tasting and from where. These are all tools you learn in Sommelier class. Based on color, aroma, varietal markers and rim variation you can almost nail it down to the region. So unless you are tasting wines from many regions blind, and even better, Double-Blind, you are already setup for getting good point scores at an Overachiever winery. Given this context, you have to assign a variation in scores based on qualities you like in a wine, age ability or just how well do you like it now or are you basing your opinion on how it will taste in 2-5 years? This is called Futures and most notably done in Bordeaux. With so many variables involved it is no wonder that some wines do well and some just mediocre. In this recently lineup 98 points was the high and 88 the low. I would take the 88 if that’s the kind of quality you get for 88 points. Many wines tend to get rated very favorably if they have the right advocates (I will comment on that in a moment).
Getting back to the point of my post, Why are there so many competitions? To this I will answer with a famous quote from a King who loved wine.

“One not only drinks wine, one smells it, observes it, tastes it, sips it, and one talks about it.”  Edward VII (1841-1910)

In the absence of a favorable Point Scores from the previously mentioned magazines, Gold medals are better than nothing. I’m not saying that reviewers and judges at wine competitions aren’t capable and as unbiased as wine writers for these magazines, I’m just saying that they are considered lesser than by wineries. This is an unfortunate and frustrating situation that needs to change. Distributors from the prohibition era to this day have kept control of alcohol distribution through what amounts to government/state controlled extortion in an effort to “Protect the public” from the selling of  ”dangerous beverages”. What they are protecting is their profit line, that isn’t much different than “Organized Wine Crime”. They decide what will be in their county or state and the consumers are held hostage to this racketeering style of control. Wine buyers go along with this with a little insider payoffs in the form of wine or heavy discounting that benefits the retailer/restaurant or hotel. With this 1, 2 punch of marketing by will, wine magazines unwittingly are playing into the cabal’s hands and the consumers will never see anything but the same ol, same ol.

I’m longing for the day when Sommelier’s and wine buyers will take a stand and demand something different. Wines with style and character and not just the mainstream brands. The “Gatekeepers” of the Wine Kingdom no longer will be the only source for good wines. In a wine world where PR companies and certain wine writers reviews are the only opinion’s that matter, wineries need to step up and fully embrace the trade; wine bloggers, Sommelier’s and small open minded distributors. We would all sell more wine and have a much more balanced approach to wine reviews.

Currently, you are forced to pay the gatekeepers that will go on record to say that your wine is good, a must buy and 90 Pointer! To get to the magazine wine reviewers you need a good PR company. This can be very expensive. To go for the Gold it will cost anywhere from $50-85 per wine and require 6 sample bottles of each to be shipped to a competition. For a large winery, that ads up to $1200-1800 for an average wine competitions. There are close to 20 mainstream wine competitions in 2012 that I counted and at least 2 more were new this year. Either way you do it, it will cost you money to get the notice of the judge and jury of wine appreciation. For small, boutique wineries who can get the notice of the right people it can be done for much less, but it takes a lot of knowing the right people. Not what you know it’s who you know adage.

By enlarge, there are to many wine competitions that will give you a gold medal just for entering, which just demeans the value of these competitions. I may have to put this to the test in 2013 and relabel the same wine in not so nice a packaging just to prove the point. One other way to get Gold medals is make sure your winery name starts in the first part of the alphabet. Most competitions taste through their wines alphabetically. By the time you get to S and T, your palate is done! A double edged sword, where judges taste over 100 wines in a day can’t lead to anything good or accurate after wine #30.

Conclusion: I would like to see less competitions and less Gold medal winners in 2013. Telling me I won a Gold medal in the Value wine section for San Luis Obispo doesn’t really mean anything if the winery that just opened down the street got the same. If you are just having a competition to make money and drink wine with a bunch of like minded revelers it’s time for you to retire your competition. I want Authenticity and so do consumers. Hold a celebration for the love of the wine quality, region and winemakers. Nothing else should be acceptable to real wine reviewers in this day and age. Give us Vino Veritas!

Based in Napa since 2005. January 2013 I started a Digital Marketing/Social Engagement company "D' Vine Social Media" for the wine & food industry. Formerly I worked for Hahn Family Wines in Social Media & Marketing for 2 years. I am a graduate from Napa Valley College Wine Program with a degree in Enology winemaking 2010. I'm a partner in a boutique wine venture, Lady Godiva Wine. First wine coming this late spring 2013. I am also a Level 1 Sommelier and consultant for food and wine and hospitality I Spent many years in Printing and Graphics and the last 15 in producing wine labels for many of the top wine producers in California. Somehow I find time to blog about food, wine and spirits and my experiences along the way. Be sure to follow me on twitter @spiritandwine

2 Responses to “Wine Competitions … Why are there so many?”

  1. Rich Reader says:

    There are a lot of competitions, and plenty of reasons why. One part of me empathizes with the “too much” POV, while another part says “not enough”.

    Too many of the wine competitions attempt to judge an overly broad swath of the wines produced. On the one hand, it’s difficult to do a good job of evaluating a large number of distinct varietals, which then leaves the consumers uncomfortable with the quality of the judgments produced. In the review section, I can never get a good handle on my own opinion of too many wines presented in a single forum or competition. On the other hand, too much specialization would spread too much fixed cost across too few wines, resulting in higher entry fees.

    As a wine prosumer, I prefer to attend competitive tastings where a large number of professionals and consumers are able to focus their energy on a fairly tight category, such as the recent International Grenache Day, which your winery participated in and did quite well. I don’t need Spectator, Enthusiast, Advocate, et al to put numbers on wines for me.

    While I do have a fair number of opportunities to experience groups of wines in those sorts of formats, it’s still clear to me that consumers need more access to reliable independent opinion when they are perusing the aisles of bottle shops, grocery stores, department stores, online sites, and restaurant wine lists.

    However, wineries, from time to time, need PR and professional opinions that they can publish and cite, that receives wide circulation even though there remain a lot of concerns about the reliability and usability of that information in the mind of the consumer.

    Some problems have no great answers, and that’s okay.

  2. spiritandwine says:

    I agree that wine competitions tend to have an overly broad spectrum without focus. The Pinot Shootout is very focused and I think this is good for the trade, although consumers don’t always understand that. Lodi has a Consumer Wine Awards that tends to put the focus on consumers, which I like, but not enough sway with the big guys to make them want to show their wines. Not sure what the solution is but I think less is more in this instance.

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